As the more and more candidates start running for office, I thought we’d celebrate the short story of Isaac Asimov where a robot became President for Throwback Thursday, ScienceFiction.com’s ongoing column dedicated the great science fiction of the past.
A few of you Asimov aficionados may be wondering why I would chose a short story that was in two collections of short stories that have far more famous tales like ‘Bicentennial Man.’
The simple answer is that it’s my column, and I do I what I want. The more complete answer is while Asimov is pretty much genius at everything he does, I think not looking at his shorter, less talked about works is doing a disservice to the complex and interesting ideas he was constantly presenting the world with.
‘The Tercentary Incident’ is short. Very short. Like 5,000 words, bare minimum for a short story short. But even in that time, Asimov creates an entire political world, as he is the master of. Sure, we call him one of the sci-fi greats for the technology he predicts, but we never truly give him enough credit for the political realities he weaves from these new technologies. And that, my friends, is why I’ve chosen this short, but very sweet (as in awesome, not so much cute seeing as there are assassinations) tale of a robot saving the world from the bad politics of a incompetent, elected leader.
If you’ve read ‘I, Robot,’ you know that Asimov is very focused on what the advent of robots mean for our personal, professional, and civil lives. In this one, he chooses to eschew his usual long allegories about the Three Rules of Robotics, though it follows along the usual lines of a robot doing something unexpected to follow a higher law.
Essentially, the president, Hugo Allen Winkler, is a do-nothing president who is presiding over the World Federation breaking up because he was an “empty man, a charmer, a vote grabber, a promiser” and ” was a disappointing man to have in office now after all the hopes of those first months of his administration”. In this time, presidents had robot doubles to serve as a decoys. After an assasination attempt that presumbly kills the robot, suddenly everything in the world gets better, and we discover its because robot let the president die, and then took up his position in his stead.
But wait, you say. Doesn’t that go against Asimov’s first law of robotics? That a robot may never harm a human, or through inaction ever allow a human come to harm? Well, yes. But this is a later story, after the creation of his Zeroth Law, which is higher than the first law. Essentially, the law says that a robot should never harm humanity, or through inaction allow humanity come to harm.
In this case, the robot saw what a big d-bag President Walker was, and the Zeroth law kicked in. And now, isn’t that an interesting concept?
As I said, it’s a short read, and I highly suggest you wile away a half hour reading it. You can find it in the short story collections “Bicentennial Man” and “The Complete Robot,” Happy reading!